Reform Won’t Do It, Australian Universities Need Revolution


It’s time for debate to go beyond meddling market reform. To save higher education we’ll need to get radical, write Kristen Lyons and Richard Hil.

Have we reached saturation point when it comes to criticism of the modern university? What’s left to say?

We surely know by now that universities turn on certain instrumental values linked to the economy, GDP, productivity, careers and the rest, and that they operate more like private firms than public institutions, with practices that close off options for critical research and learning.

We also know that successive governments have starved universities of funds, compelling most to go cap-in-hand into the global market, where corporate influence looms large. And surely no-one needs reminding of the plunging morale of academics, the exploitation of thousands of casual employees, or the growing disenchantment of graduates unable to obtain work and saddled with life-long debt?

For those of us who yearn for a university that truly embrace ideas of democracy, citizenship, sustainability, peace, community, ethics and the public good, today’s system of higher education looks bleak indeed.

The University of Technology Sydney. (IMAGE: extramaster, Flickr.)
The University of Technology Sydney. (IMAGE: extramaster, Flickr.)

The problem facing critics of the current system – including us – is that old chestnut: the vision thing. After all, what does a ‘good university’ really look like? Good according to whom and what? And even if we can figure out some sort of future scenario, how do we get there? These questions have been addressed, in part, in a recent contribution to the Australian Universities Review by Professor Raewyn Connell. Professor Connell identifies three essential features of the good university: first, an intellectual and institutional commitment to addressing questions of authority, truth, power and action; second, a secure, equitable and democratised workplace; and third, debt-free education based on “public service and social justice”. Such elements hinge on values markedly different to those embodied in today’s university system.

Important though these core elements are in building a good public institution, they only go so far. In our view the current system is so deeply flawed, so compromised by market-based interests, that something akin to a higher education revolution is required. To be sure, the measures proposed by Connell are bottom-line conditions that would at least claw back some of the more necessary aspects that make up a public university. Yet, taken as a whole, it is doubtful whether the current system can be sufficiently reformed to bring about a more communitarian and citizenship-minded institutional culture and reformism only detracts from the more comprehensive public debate that needs to be had. There is an urgent need to generate alternative educational possibilities that provide for new ways of thinking, being and doing; something more attuned to the evolving global arrangements necessary for a democratised and sustainable future. In short, we need paradigmatic change.

So what might this post-revolution university look like? To understand the sort of approach required, we need to know what shapes and defines the current system of higher education. Perhaps we could start with the general observation that today’s massified system (comprised of 40 universities and a bevy of private colleges) is allied to the symbolic and operational markers of the globalised capitalist system – economic growth, GDP, market competition etc. It’s a system integral to market oriented industrialisation and private enterprise, with various academic disciplines woven around curricula and research agendas that increasingly equate ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ with ‘modernisation’ and ‘economic enrichment’. Tradition and modernism also play their part in developing the current system’s architecture, with ‘bachelor’, ‘masters’ and ‘doctoral’ degrees now considered ‘products’ to be traded on the open market.

Yet there are other possibilities for ‘higher’ education in our society. The most recent examples include the free and slow university movement, a range of civic-minded independent colleges, the School of Life now based in London and Melbourne, as well as programs that allow time and space for personal reflection, as occurs in the Evergreen State College in the United States and Schumacher College in the UK.

But more specifically, what might constitute the essential value props of the good university? Some clues to this can be found in Soil, soul and society: A new trinity of our time, by co-founder of the Schumacher College in England, Satish Kumar. For Kumar, a more civic-minded, citizen-oriented institution is founded not the guiding principles of economic globalisation and consumption, but rather on local, small-scale and sustainable community. In promoting the ecological over the economic – thereby recognising our interconnections with the Earth and its eco-systems – and in acknowledging the existential centrality of the spirit and social, Kumar suggests that it’s possible to “embrace a bigger vision of the world than the present narrow vision of money management and business administration”.

Drawing on the trinity of “head, hand and heart”, Kumar asks why our universities are so physically and pedagogically disconnected from the natural world (we study rather than actively engage with it); why staff and students are not encouraged to participate communally in the pursuit of wisdom; why time and space for quietude and contemplation are not valued; why indigenous knowledge and the custodial ethic are not core to every curriculum; why community gardens, food preparation, and other means of cooperation and sharing are not integral to campus life; why there is such an absence of meaningful, binding ritual and celebration; why there is so much emphasis placed on material acquisition, career success and consumption (with campuses often resembling shopping malls); and why there is not more emphasis on unlearning and contesting the legacies of colonial rule (repeated, some say, in the exporting of western models of education and business to ‘developing countries’).

Indeed, Kumar bemoans the way in which western models of education marginalise and often ignore small-scale, localised agrarian and other practices in so-called ‘developing’ countries while extolling the virtues of mass production. After all, why try to understand and integrate the agricultural practices of peasant farmers when agribusiness will do? It is also worth contemplating, as Connell has done elsewhere, why western, and especially European bodies of knowledge, have tended to supersede those in the global south?

The University of Sydney. (IMAGE: Jason James, Flickr)

Kumar’s point is that by resisting the tyranny of western market-based values we open up the possibility of new and more communitarian educational horizons. Like Paulo Friere and others, he argues for a more citizen-oriented participatory and experiential approach that embraces unlearning, relearning, reflection and evaluation as core elements in critical pedagogy. An important implication flowing from this is that academics and students might consider critically scrutinising the very institutions of which they are a part – universities – and particularly the role they play in maintaining the current order of things.

It might also be worth pondering, as does Harvard-based philosopher, Michael Sandal, why the market is considered so central and indispensible to everyday life. If, as community economy advocates argue, non-market (including household) activities represent an estimated 30 to 50 per cent of all work, then why do universities continually genuflect to market principles? And given that non-market work has a potentially greater impact on social wellbeing, why don’t we take more time to understand its value in education and other domains? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that such non-market practices – including the diverse activities that make up the informal and exchange economy – are not only basic to meeting human needs, but can (through a more civic orientation) contribute significantly to the “good life”, with educators and students playing their part as active change agents.

In our view, it’s not enough to merely seek improvements in industrial relations and greater autonomy for academics (vital though these are), it’s the fundamental values of the current system that need to be radically rethought.